Sushi for every one

From tomorrow, the most fashionable eating experience in London will involve picking raw fish from a slow-moving conveyor belt. Welcome to Yo! Sushi, the latest product of the Japanese genius for linking industrial technology and sensual pleasure. By Peter Popham

Like a chicken plucker, you sit at a bar facing a conveyor belt, rubbing shoulders with the stranger on the next stool, and the colour- coded plates of raw fish and rice come trundling along, each protected by a little plastic hood; when you see one you fancy, you make a grab for it. This is the lunchtime experience at Soho's newest and most brashly modern eatery, the gruesomely named Yo! Sushi, which opens formally tomorrow.

One of Japan's most striking contributions to the modern world is what one might call the industrialisation of sensuality. With a long succession of inventions and adaptations, including personal stereos, home video, karaoke systems and fax machines, they have demonstrated a genius for yoking industrial technology to intimate and sensual purposes. Kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi, invented in the northern city of Sendai in 1968 and now ubiquitous in Japan, with more than 2,000 shops, is one that is just now arriving in the UK.

Japan is still full of traditional sushi-ya, sushi bars, places where one sits at a bar of unvarnished wood that has been scrubbed a painful shade of white by the apprentice-slaves and where the presiding chef conducts himself like the priest of some alarming, occult sect, bellowing at his underlings, sharpening a fearsome selection of knives and with swift, deft strokes slicing the fatty tuna or octopus or cuttlefish to the customer's muttered orders.

There is usually the sound of running water in the background and the gentle rustling of bamboo; green tea, called agari, is served boiling hot in huge, chunky mugs; the arrival of the bill is liable to spoil the experience if you are not mentally prepared for it, but an evening at a good sushi-ya is for many people a distillation of all that is most treasurable about Japan.

The imperative, for hygienic reasons, of extreme freshness, and the amazing variety of edibles dragged up from the sea by Japanese trawlermen, has lent the eating of sushi in Japan a rich cultural particularity, a pervading connoisseurship, and an elaborate ceremonial. Sushi is always accompanied by green tea, and individual tastes are separated by nibbles of pickled ginger, freshening the palate for the new taste sensation that is about to hit it. Tokyo's best sushi-ya specialise in surprising their regular customers with rare treats such as fresh scallops, rare molluscs, sea urchin eggs, or anything else that the master can find in Tsukiji, the city's huge fish market, and put to use.

Kaiten sushi was the innovation that transformed sushi from an exquisite, intimate, expensive experience to a snack food with the convenience and mass appeal of hamburgers and noodles. Because sushi is eaten cold, it can truck along on the conveyor belt for some time without deteriorating; each serving is roughly the same size, so fits on a uniformly sized plate on the belt; and the special advantage of the belt system is that it allows customers to be impulsive, to grab on a whim. The direct relationship with the master is replaced by typically modern impersonality. The quality of the food is only a fraction of that found in a traditional sushi restaurant - but then, so is the price.

Sushi arrived in the West in a big way during the Eighties, when it became identified with high-earning New York yuppies. The fact that it survived this encounter is due to its healthiness, convenience and relative blandness: unlike spicy ethnic dishes, one can eat good sushi day after day after day without tiring of it. The first conveyor sushi restaurant in Britain opened in London's Liverpool Street station in 1994, but Yo! Sushi is the most ambitious attempt yet to turn sushi into a food with mainstream appeal in the UK.

In this it follows the lead of Wagamama, the huge, canteen-like Japanese/Chinese noodle restaurants that have caused such a sensation in the past few years. Although Wagamama sounds Japanese (the word means "selfish") and serves mostly Japanese versions of Chinese noodle dishes, it has broken out of the ghetto of ethnic dining to become truly international in appeal. Yo! Sushi, which has a menu closely based on Japanese sushi restaurants but no Japanese staff or Japanese design motifs, is aspiring to go the same way.

The man behind Yo! Sushi is Simon Woodroffe, and this is his first excursion into catering. Starting out as an assistant stage manager in the theatre, in the Eighties he became a leading designer of stages for rock 'n' roll shows, culminating in Live Aid. His introduction to Japan came three years ago, when he designed the set for an extraordinary concert outside one of Japan's oldest temples, featuring Buddhist monks, the Kodo drummers, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Jon Bon Jovi. His Japanese hosts introduced him to the phantasmagoric, Blade Runner scenery of downtown Osaka at night. A year later, when he was casting around for a retail project to launch, a Japanese friend in London advised him to open a kaiten sushi restaurant with waitresses in black PVC miniskirts. He declined the second half of the suggestion, but judges the first half to have been a winner.

As in Japan, the chief appeal of this sort of restaurant is that it is so easy. Instead of confronting a lengthy menu full of strange-looking, hard-to-pronounce words, all you do is sit, look, and grab what you fancy. If you are thirsty, each place-setting has its own tap, dispensing fizzy mineral water at pounds 1 a glass. Meanwhile, two robotic drinks trolleys continually circle the restaurant laden with beer, wine, sake and tea. Again, all you have to do is grab what you want as it passes; when you have had enough, the server tots up the colour-coded plates, the bottles and so on, and you pay at the check-out as you leave. As in Japan, there is no service charge and no tipping.

When I visited, three days before the official opening, Yo! Sushi still had some way to go before being fully functioning. As the basic constituents of sushi - flavoured rice, nori seaweed and raw fish - are repetitive, to make a tolerable meal you need a pretty wide variety of fish to choose from, but on Monday the choice was restricted to tuna (the sushi staple - here a rather garish orange), sweet omelette, strapped to its mounting of rice by a band of nori, white fish (hirama), prawn and salted mackerel. The flavour, both of fish and rice, was perfectly OK, however. Soon gourmet chefs will be installed to contribute delicacies such as ikura (salmon roe), uni (sea urchin) and toro (fatty tuna) to the conveyor belt, and Yo! Sushi will become a hard place to walk past.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Lead Systems Developer / Software Developer

COMPETITIVE + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Lead Systems Developer / Sof...

Recruitment Genius: Social Media & Engagement Manager - French or German Speaker

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: The world's leading financial services careers...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Executive - 6 Months Contract

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Digital Marketing Executive...

Guru Careers: Account Manager / Senior Account Manager

40-45K DOE + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Manager / Senior Account Manag...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future